If you ever get a chance to come to the South of India, close to either the state of Karnataka or Tamilnadu, I urge you to come and visit me. I reside on a hill almost at the border of two states, mere 20 km east of Bengaluru and about 230 km from Chennai.
I stand forlorn and deserted overlooking the valley, crumbling with the winds of time, thinking about the days when I was revered and famous. Hardly anyone ever comes to my altar to pray these days, but there was a time when worshippers surrounded me. My tapering ceilings decorated with amorous apsaras, posing gods, and bellowing elephants touched the skies; the sound of bells and prayers filled the morning air, and beggars came from all around for their daily meal. Dignitaries and commoners from far and near came to seek blessings of the stone statues that resided on the alter clad in finest linen in bright colors.
Over the years, I have heard countless mantras chanted by thousands of priests who prayed in my belly. I have swelled with the songs of gratitude and praise from the zealot on the fulfillment of their desires. Then, on the other hand, I have been saddened by the grievances of the worshippers and wails of the sufferers. I have witnessed childless women praying for sons, unmarried young women seeking worthy husbands, young men seeking blessing for success in their endeavors, older men asking for prosperity and peace.
Today in my twilight years, I have nothing better to do but go over the days of my glory. I reminisce about my devotees and wonder what happened to them. Their stories keep me wondering.
If you care to listen, I can tell you a story each night. I remember them as if they happened yesterday.
This one is about a young girl of marriageable age in the thirteen century.
I was young too then. Recently built. Still getting to know my role in society. Three priests were responsible for my upkeep, taking turns in doing prayers and building my reputation. An army of devotees kept the premises clean and collected offerings.
Her name was Champa. She came with her parents, carrying a silver platter full of offerings to ask for a worthy husband.
She was fresh like the jasmine flowers she wore in her hair. Fair-skinned, short-statured, her sensual body she was not easy to forget. Maybe that is why she is still stuck in my memory.
Gods probably also noticed her because they granted her wish.
Less than a year later, she came back. This time with her husband, the only son of a personage. The parents accompanied the young couple too. They did puja and asked for an offspring to complete their happiness.
There must be something lacking in their prayers. This time, gods didn’t respond to their prayers for many years.
It came to the point that the young man’s family started pressuring him to seek another wife. “The girl might be barren,” was their argument. But the young man was hopelessly in love with the girl and wouldn’t hear of any alternative.
The doctors couldn’t find anything wrong with the couple. “This is something in God’s hands” was all they could offer.
A few more years passed.
Now the family was getting really anxious. If the couple didn’t produce a son soon, the family name would vanish.
The boy’s parents consulted the elders, the astrologers, and priests. Finally, a solution was agreed upon without the knowledge of the couple.
Next month, on a full moon night, the girl and her mother-in-law came to me with a whole load of offerings of fruits, flowers, and coconuts. The temple was kept open late that night just for them.
All three priests were present. Led by the head priest, they performed a special puja. Champa was asked to do parikarma twenty-one times around the deities, reciting the mantra the head priest gave her.
While she was still doing the parikarma, the mother-in-law left the temple. Fully immersed in the puja, Champa didn’t even notice her departure. When she finished the final round and stood in front of the deities, hands folded, head bent, and eyes closed. Suddenly everything went still. I drew in my breath.
Champa probably felt the stillness too.
She opened her eyes. The head priest was standing a few feet from her, leering intently. She didn’t like what she saw. Looking around for her mother-in-law, she backed towards the door. When she couldn’t find her, she ran. My carved gilded doors, which should remain open at all times, were closed.
I knew what I was about to witness but couldn’t do anything to prevent it.
Champa banged and banged. Even I couldn’t open my own door. She begged when the head priest tore the sari from her body. He laughed at her, begging through his stained teeth. She ran back inside the temple, this time to beg the gods. It was time for me to discover that those idols whom the whole world came to get their wishes granted were nothing more than stone statues. The head priest took her, right there on the altar, followed by the other two.
My whole being shuddered with disgust. That night I learned the meaning of sanctity. A place can’t be sacred if the hearts are not. Ashamed at myself, more than anyone else, I figured out what my role was going to be—the one of a mute observer.
A few months later, Champa came back with her husband and his family. A baby in her arms. She followed the priest’s instructions to get her son blessed.
But she didn’t bow her head, either in front of the priest or the gods.
© Neera Mahajan, December 2014